The Mother’s Mouth

The Mother’s Mouth by Dash Shaw. Alternative Comics, 2006. 128p., $12.95.

Dash Shaw’s previous book Goddess Head was an ambitious and inconsistent collection of formal experiments that were often too oblique to make much sense. The Mother’s Mouth is a graphic novel that tells a rather straightforward narrative in a rich, experimental montage of comics panel sequences, single images, photographs, and diagrams.

If I found Goddess Head a little difficult to follow, The Mother’s Mouth is an interesting book that repays on subsequent reads (I read it four times as of this writing). The way Shaw tells his story makes rereading a necessity. He juxtaposes dissimilar images and sequences in such a way that the connections are not always immediately obvious but within a reading context of the whole gain resonance (the first appearance of a full-page photograph is confusing and surprising, while it’s second appearance is shocking and resonant to the context of the original appearance). The book’s form creates a necessity in the reader to pay attention. You can’t skim this book or read it with partial attention. It requires attention and thought (without which it would be an unsatisfactory reading experience). More so than most comics, Shaw puts that element of comics which most defines it, juxtaposed images in sequence, to great use.

The story tells of Virginia, who quits her job at the library to travel home to New Orleans where her mother is dying. As her mother dies, Virginia becomes involved with a young musician named Dick who reminds her of Richard, a boy she knew as a child who died during a “rebirthing” therapy session.

The story is a journey into the past, a retreading of old ground, and, in the end, the hint of moving forward. From the beginning, this movement into the past is shown in different ways. We see Virginia driving a truck back to New Orleans. In most comics, the movement of her truck would go from left to right on the page, moving the story forward. Shaw has four pages where we see the truck moving from right to left against the flow of our reading. Similarly, the back of the title page shows a man regressing into an ape. Many parts of the story are devoted to a look (a glance or a long gaze) into the past. A role-playing recreation of the past plays an important part at two points. As Virginia’s mother lies in bed dying, there is a sense of her regression to childhood. Birth and death loop around to meet.

Shaw’s drawing is not in itself all that great. I’m not tempted to excerpt panels from the book like I am with some artists. The characters veer between the awkward and the grotesque. Rather, his great skill, and the real art in this book, is the way images are juxtaposed. Not just an ongoing sequence of panels in a uniform style following a well-tread narrative form, The Mother’s Mouth is an often jarring meeting of disparate images and sequences, diagrams, photographs, and drawings with annotations. Shaw does not eschew conventional panel sequences, but by their contrast with the other parts of the book, they gain significance and cause the reader to pay closer attention.

After a few readings, many of the more oblique images in the book began to fit together as a coherent whole, though there are still pages that remain a mystery, symbols or metaphors that elude explanation (to me, at least). Shaw takes a mostly mundane story and tells it in a way that creates wonder, mystery, and emotion. If it does not so much end as begin anew, that only makes more sense within the books thematics.

This is the kind of comic that almost asks for a close reading, a page by page examination to pull out all the interesting uses of the form and the repetitions of themes and imagery. For instance, almost in the center of the book is a two page spread that shows four cut-away diagrams that look like an archaeological recreation of a bird dying, becoming a fossil, and then begin dug up. In itself this image jars with the preceding scene of comics panels showing Virginia and Dick on their date, but in the context of the whole story and the scene that follows (where Virginia has Dick play the role of her dead friend Richard in a scene) it reinforces the sense of burial and excavation that haunts the psychology of the characters and is found many times in the book in different forms.

Highly recommended, Dash Shaw is a comic artist to watch and this is one of the most interesting and novel comics of the year.

You can download a 20 page pdf preview of the book at Shaw’s site.